TIMES HAVE CHANGED SINCE WRITER’S FIRST DAYTONA 500 IN 1987

You might be like me and not remember what you had for lunch yesterday. But, also like me, you probably remember every detail of your first Daytona Speedweeks.

I was exposed to auto racing as a fan in 1976 going to numerous weekly short tracks. My first Cup race in person was in 1984 at Pocono. Dover was the second series track I visited 2 years later. My Daytona christening took place in 1987 and to this day I could still write a daily diary for that entire week.

My senior year in high school had no February vacation planned. That didn’t matter. I just took the time off and went racing.


As I recall Daytona 24 years ago, typical ticket sales required purchase a year in advance or close to it. Anyone holding seats had first choice to renew them, which were most fans. Very few lower level seats remained but those also needed to be bought at least by the previous autumn because of the yearly sellout. The price for entry into my first 500 in the Seagrave Grandstand, row 15, seat 8 was $35. Today online I found the same ticket for sale at a price of $150.

Corporate sponsorship was not near the levels and dollar amounts it approaches today, even with the current recession’s effects. Procter and Gamble backed three cars in the field with Tide, Crisco, and Folgers. They were all considered barrier-breaking deals. Those brands steered away from the common Wrangler, STP and beer products.

Darrell Waltrip had just left Junior Johnson’s ride from the previous year. This was his first race with Hendrick Motorsports and Tide’s first sponsored car. We went into the season finding it unusual that Waltrip was no longer carrying the Budweiser colors. Now there is a generation of fans that know him solely for his broadcasting work.

Lights were still over a decade away from being installed at Daytona. I often wondered why. Even at the time I asked about lighting the two-and-a-half mile track. Short tracks had been lit for decades. Wouldn’t it be the same process, just more components? In 1998 that question was answered.

This was the last Daytona 500 with a covered grandstand in the tri-oval. The former press box and roof were about to make way for the massive tower that began the upward expansion on the frontstretch.

This was also the final Speedweeks run without restrictor plates. I witnessed Bill Elliott’s 210-mph pole winning run on a sunny Monday afternoon. Engine roar could be heard during single car runs, and so could a whistle as the bodies sliced through the air at that speed.

The International Race of Champions and NASCAR Dash Series showcased Friday support events. Today IROC no longer exists and NASCAR has since sold off the four-cylinder class, which now runs under the ISCARS banner.

The top five at the end of the 500 were Bill Elliott, Benny Parsons, Richard Petty, Buddy Baker and Dale Earnhardt. Sixth through tenth were Bobby Allison, Ken Schrader, Darrell Waltrip, Ricky Rudd, and Cale Yarborough. How may current and future Hall of Fame inductees can you count there?

Some big names that were getting bigger and drove that day were Neil Bonnett, Davey Allison and Alan Kulwicki. Sadly the trio is longer with us.

Rusty Wallace, Sterling Marlin and Terry Labonte were also among those that took the green flag. They are a group of NASCAR names commonly mentioned by old-schoolers who miss the “good old days.”  

A.J Foyt and Tom Sneva made cameos from the Indycar ranks. Crossover guest drivers were more commonplace and it was not much of a shock for another series’ star to have a one-off ride.

Times have changed in the NASCAR world. Depending on your point of view some for the better and some for the worse. But Daytona Speedweeks still accomplishes what it always has. Creating unforgettable memories for fans and all that are fortunate enough to experience the magical week in Florida.

(Patrick Reynolds is a former NASCAR team mechanic who hosts "Motorweek Live" Mondays at 7pm ET/4pm PT. Listen at www.racersreunionradio.com)

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